Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What global competition?

In NYS yesterday, our beloved Governor Cuomo once again, lashed out against the education system of NYS public schools when he was asked a question in a news conference regarding the lack of a tax on millionaires. This is a typical tactic of political leaders when asked a question they do not wish to offend certain people, they divert the answer to punish the helpless and more needy programs so that they can sound tough and masterful.

"The fact that everyone wants it ... doesn't mean that much," Cuomo said. According to the governor, the exodus of wealthy New Yorkers could be an issue if the tax is extended. Cuomo said the people of New York are not being honest with themselves if they think New York can have a reputation for high taxes and being "anti-business" and still have a "rosy" future as a state.
The governor went on to say that more money doesn't mean better services. "My answer is better performance."[1]

And with that remark, he launched himself into another attack on the public education of the NYS students, emphasizing that a NYS education is 34th in the nation. Taxes are high and we are not doing our job as educators. So, preserve the millionaires in the state, and raise the tax levy on middle class Americans that are just basically getting by, while shouting that it costs too much to provide a world class public education.

World class education?

First of all, the global competitiveness we all seek is overrated. What are we competing against? The cold war is over. The mentality of the 60’s where the USA needs to be the best at everything has given way to absurd and reactive behaviors among what we are truly producing. Americans only need to be better than themselves. There is no global competition, just a global networking of the best minds in the world attempting to forge a new enlightenment of knowledge, research and education.

Second, the standards that predict global competitiveness are skewed. We are one of the only nations that takes into consideration all of our children in these competitive assessments, such as the TIMMS evaluation. Special education or children with identified disabilities are as much a part of the education of this country as other children are part of the equation. Countries such as Belgium, Indonesia and other so-called “economic powerhouses” avoid mentioning their special needs children. So, it appears that the standards for comparison are not stacked equally.

Lastly, when a political figure such as our NYS governor attacks education, he is also attacking himself, and his predecessors that have done nothing more than favor the wealthy with their elaborate tax breaks and loop-holes, and demoralized the educational system of the state to bare bones insanity. The fact that we are 12 years into the 21st century and there is not a common sense approach to funding public education without burdening the middle class is astounding to say the least.

And still, Andrew Cuomo has the temerity to insult our state and our schools into implying there is some ratings list in the sky that pigeon-holes our educational efforts as inferior. It’s as if the great Carnak has reappeared to enlighten our leaders.

The reality is there are too many bad assumptions being espoused by our political leaders about our educational systems. In a wonderful blog comment by Michael Paul Goldenberg he outlines the mythical assumptions that distort the realities very nicely:

… education and our "global competitiveness" have not been shown to be causally linked? That, while we continue to win more than our reasonable share of Nobel Prizes, dominate the world politically, economically, and militarily, none of the folks who can be counted on to tell us that "the sky is falling" in US public schools have EVER credited our world dominance to our public education system? Neither have the generations of doomsayers before them going back at least to the 19th century and likely much further. And that the insanity of using international test scores that are not comparing similar populations from many other countries to those being tested here only further invalidates the premise that our schools are failing and that our children are woefully under-prepared.[2]

But, as I have referred to in previous blog entries, education remains the “whipping post” of politicians. It’s the only issue they can use to divert attention away from the real matters they can do nothing about, such as the economy. And, still we bear up to the same attacks facing our responsibilities to educate every child that walks into our schools, regardless of the rhetoric and the attacks.

Oops. Time for another lashing!!

[1] Krieg, F. (October 17, 2011). Cuomo: Millionaires Tax To Expire. Legislative Gazette. Retrieved October 18 at http://www.legislativegazette.com/Articles-c-2011-10-17-80938.113122-Cuomo-Millionaires-tax-will-expire.html
[2] Goldenberg, M. P. (2011, October 8). Globally challenged: are us students ready to compete? [Web log comment] Retrieved from http://myednext.org/events/globally-challenged-are-us-students-ready-to-compete.

Friday, October 14, 2011

What we learn from Steve Jobs?

Steve Jobs was an amazing individual.
His innovative and creative spirit spawned the Apple Corporation and he blazed a trail into all the areas of personal computing and technology that we use in our everyday lives. He embodied a truly unique spirit and was instrumental in changing the manner schools use technology to support instruction.
And I write all this on a PC computer. What a tribute!
As Superintendent of Bethlehem Central I work to meet the demands of the State in implementing the mandates of testing, testing and more testing in order to prove whether our school district is doing an excellent job of teaching students. And, then I am struck with the realization in the form of a question:
Will our schools ever produce another Steve Jobs?
Do we inspire children to be creative? Or, do we deny them this opportunity due to the structure of how our schools run currently?
Last week, on ABC's 20/20, Chris Cuomo did an excellent piece on the life of Steve Jobs. He summed up the inventor's life in seven rules that guided his work and achievements. These were derived from his comments, actions, and presentations. In many ways, they sum up the direction we need to move as a school district. Allow me to paraphrase his thoughts.
Steve Jobs' rules for life as applied to schools:
Teachers are highly trained individuals that can offer so much to children through their knowledge and capabilities. Whether it is reading, writing, math, science or technology, teachers can truly be an inspiration to children if they work in an unfettered manner free of the assertions and assumptions of educational testing and the mediocrity it breeds. They entered the profession to do what they do best, and that is to motivate and inspire children. In spite of the demands from our politicians, they try every day to do just that.
Despite the budgetary problems BC had last year, we developed a "bold vision" to immerse our students and the school community into 21st Century learning by employing personal devices wherever and whenever possible. We have committed ourselves to preparing students to be the next inventors of the newest technologies and to be ready for a future that will soon envelop us.
Unfortunately, the community rejected our idea to make this dream a reality, but the school district continues to find a way to make this dream a reality in everything we do, say and teach.
3) SAY NO TO A 1,000 THINGS.
In other words, simplify our profession. This will be difficult given the interference of the politicians that care more about winning votes than preparing students for the 21st Century challenges. But, as a school district we need to thrive to push back against the absurd demands that come to us from the state, even though we must test, test and test more to make this standard of mediocrity conform to the political rhetoric in Albany and Washington.
In another time, we hope to say no to the 1,000 mandates that were supposed to be curtailed in March, and still haunt our inability to fund the other things that will truly make a difference for students.
Many of us, teachers, administrators, support staff and students are stretching our comfort levels to learn new things. No matter what the venue is, we need to encourage organizational learning and that includes all of our school-community members. If everyone experienced one new idea each month we would be light years into the future of preparing children to do their best.
In schools we should be selling dreams of educational success and creative opportunities, and not the bill of goods found in a report card or testing manual. With over 38 years in education I can confidently say that children learn best when they are challenged to confront a new reality. To do that we should mandate time each week in class for children to confront creative projects and problem solving activities.
Schools are great learning environments for super experiences that challenge and motivate people. From Nature's Classroom in grade 5 to Lab School active learning and research environments in high school, our district is filled with many "insanely" great experiences. We need to do more of them and encourage some risk taking in the process.
When Steve Jobs presented the idea of the iPhone, he changed the face of telecommunications and smartphone computers forever. In education we need to master a similar message that attracts the creative genius of children to master their potential in order to confront new realities.
The message in what I have presented is that public school districts need to unshackle themselves from the mediocrity of what the established bureaucracy have created and be allowed to reach for the stars. For, I am quite concerned that if we do not, there will be little chance of inspiring the next innovator of future challenges.
Let's hope we all learn something from people like Steve Jobs.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Tribute to a Great Man...Steve Jobs

For years I declared openly, to many of my friends that I was a PC person, and could not be bothered learning on a Mac or an Apple product. I felt the disdain of those that stated Apple products were more user-friendly than PC computers. I advocated openly that PC’s were the way of the corporate world and there would be no place for Apples in the future. And then, iPhones, iPods, and iPads began appearing on the educational and corporate horizons of America. Suddenly, there were many people using a wide range of Apple laptops at conferences and meetings, and I began to sense that my perspective may have been skewed by prejudices from my background. So, I purchased an iPhone and an iTouch, and use an iPad in my job. My wife even owns and uses a Macbook, and for some reason I am becoming enthralled with Apple products, and continue to use PC equipment as well, just like all the kids in our schools!

Unfortunately, this morning, many of us awoke to learn that Steve Jobs, the founder and guru of this Apple  mania, passed away after suffering from a debilitating illness for many months. The commentary and tribute to the life of this great man have been quite extraordinary and unusually full of praise. The tweets on Twitter continue to abound with praise and condolences to the figure of the person that has been referred to as the 21st Century Thomas Edison

After reading many of these items, and continuing to go about my day using my iTools, it dawns on me why the world is saddened today, more than ever.

For educators around the world, the tributes to Jobs are more a huge thank you for the contributions he made to 21st Century education. Schools have always found Apple products user-friendly as opportunities to let children and learners to soar for new heights of achievement, investigation and research.

In an outstanding tribute to Steve Jobs by columnist Stephen Levy he wonderfully portrays this figure as a model for what we all should be teaching in the schools:

"If Jobs were not so talented, if he were not so visionary, if he were not so canny in determining  where others had failed in producing great products and what was necessary to succeed, his pushiness and imperiousness would have made him a figure of mockery. But Steve Jobs was that talented, visionary and determined. He combined an innate understanding of technology with an almost supernatural sense of what customers would respond to. His conviction that design should be central to his products not only produced successes in the marketplace but elevated design in general, not just in consumer electronics but everything that aspires to the high end."[1]

For me, the key words in that passage are visionary, determined, innate; in short the things we encourage when we discuss creativity, the focus of the 21st Century student. How we get to that objective, when institutions governed by political inhibitions demand otherwise faults the educational direction our future will demand.
In another interesting article on creativity and multitasking, author Cathy Davidson states that the learning differences of children today, as opposed to 20 years ago, have changed, and if we seek to make a difference we need to grab hold to the inertia of true 21st Century learning:
“Multitasking is the ideal mode of the 21st Century, …On the Internet, everything links to everything, and all of it is available all the time. Unfortunately, current practices of our educational institutions- and workplaces- are a mismatch between the age we live in and the institutions we have built over the last 100 years. The 2oth century taught us that completing one task before starting another one was the route to success. Everything about 20th century education, like the 20th century workplace, has been designed to reinforce our attention to regular, systematic tasks that we take to completion. Attention to task is at the heart of industrial management from the assembly line to the modern office, and of educational philosophy, from grade school to graduate school."[2]
Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and yes, Bill Gates were instrumental in building this new future for all of us. The new global context for learning in the 21st century is indeed the mission and the task. We need to use these tools to encourage the creativity and risk-taking of our students.

[1] Levy, S. (2011, October 5). Steve jobs, 1955-2011. Wired, Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2011/10/jobs/

[2] Davidson, C. N. (2011). Please give me your divided attention. The Chronicle Review(September 2, 2011)., B6-B9.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Always our best...

We have a principal in one of our elementary schools that lives and speaks the school motto often to her staff, her students and her parents. The motto is "Always our best!". Wherever she travels throughout her school when she is with students the motto is there also;
"Always our best, children."
Many times we confront the reality of wanting to do our personal best. As we remind children in a school to be focused on this, it would seem simple enough to have a coach constantly with us reminding and motivating our personal best.
In an interesting article found in the New Yorker Magazine, an experienced and veteran surgeon defines the concept of finding one's personal best. He uses an interesting analogy regarding this idea explaining how even professional tennis players use a coach to observe, guide, analyze and evaluate the player in order to reach that elusive potential to be the best player he/she can be. The author seeks to find that same desire to improve as a surgeon. Do we, as educators approach our profession any differently ?
Providing teachers with peer coaches or mentors to offer feedback, certainly nothing new in this regard, but it is hardly ever employed. Most teachers feel a safety and security within their classrooms away from the lingering observations of an administrator. Being able to practice one's craft or teach is the dream of every teacher; unhindered and free to do the instructional situation to one's benefit. But, in this day of professional performance review and high order accountability the necessity of providing feedback and criticism challenges that framework.
There is much to be learned from peer review, and the mentoring possibilities are astounding when we task veteran teachers to work with one another. Every teacher should have a mentor, and every mentor should be working with colleagues to become a true profession.

Gawande, A.( October 3, 2011). Personal Best. New Yorker Magazine. Retrieved October 1, 2011 on the Internet at http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/10/03/111003fa_fact_gawande?currentPage=all